By Mika Rao Kalapatapu
Summers are long and hot in Texas. And unlike Philadelphia, where I was raised, by August kids and parents are already thinking about back to school — attending orientations and buying sneakers. Which is what families were doing on August 3 in El Paso when they were killed in a mass shooting by a man from Dallas who had written a manifesto about the “invasion” of the Hispanic community.
This massacre — the largest terrorist attack against Americans of Latinx origin — took place just weeks after our President tweeted to four U.S. Congresswomen to go back to their countries. After his comment circulated, my friends of all backgrounds compared notes. It was depressing to hear just how many Americans have been told to go back to our country. Whether those words were said recently or decades ago, the pain remains raw.
Texans and people of goodwill everywhere, were horrified and saddened by the event in El Paso — and the shooting that took place just hours later in Dayton. Many of us, however, were not shocked. We have been walking on egg shells and waiting for the other shoe to drop for some time.
In 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated, Srinivas Kuchibhotla — an immigrant in Kansas City — was murdered at a bar by a man who told him to go back to his country. Soon after, Harnish Patel, a well-loved shop owner in South Carolina, was killed. This was followed in Seattle by the murder of Deep Rai, shot in his driveway by a man who reportedly also told him to go back to his country.
These words, “go back to your country” are a knife in the heart of any immigrant who gave up so much to enter and build a successful life in the American world of freedom, opportunity and democracy. After President Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, my father immigrated to America as part of the wave of students and professionals from India and other Asian countries. My mother joined him in 1972, becoming the first member of her own family to cross the ocean to the great American unknown.
Like so many others in pursuit of the American dream, my parents took on jobs, bought a house, paid taxes, volunteered in civic organizations and eventually became proud U.S. citizens. Today, they no longer consider their birthplace to be “their country.” After 50 years here, they’ve spent more time in this country than in their country of origin.
My own all-American childhood included playing out back with my neighbors, sleepovers at my friends’ houses, arguing with my parents over curfew. After growing up, I built my career in the nonprofit sector and volunteered in community organizations. My husband was inducted into the hall of honor at his high school for his local contributions.
We are not unique. People like us have spent our entire lives demonstrating that we are patriots, only to have the President remind us that to him — and to others who abide by his commentary — we never will be American enough.
And where does this leave my children — Indian as they look to Trump and his followers — but who are third generation Americans? For them, India is a mythical, magical destination, but surely not home. They are growing up in the Houston suburbs, less than five miles from the home where their father was raised. How can I explain Trump’s comments to these two clear-eyed teenagers? Even if I can write it off as the latest horrific tweet from a President who is unfit for his office — how do I write off the teachers, coaches, and neighbors who are part of my children’s community, who helped raise them and have always supported them, but now support a leader who stands for this?
As a communications professional, I usually have something to say — but for this, I can’t think of any words. Like the tales I have told my children about our family’s journey to become American, I know the families killed in El Paso had stories too — filled with patriotism, sacrifice and love. Stories about the best part of America — where neighbors become friends despite differences, where first graders learn through their classmates about global cultures, where we collectively agree in the value of many paths becoming one. This is the story of Texas. And it has always been the story of my America.
How heartbreaking that my children are growing up in the shadow of such a different time.
And how dangerous. In just the few weeks since the President’s remarks, we witnessed the horrors of this rhetoric turned to murder in El Paso and Dayton. There have also been two additional hate crimes against religious leaders of South Asian origin. As long as the narrative continues to cast people as others, hate crimes will continue as well. Words matter. Our leaders’ examples matter. And how our fellow Americans respond matters too.
Mika Rao Kalapatapu is a communications director at a national non-profit organization. She also serves on the board of directors for SAADA (South Asian American Digital Archives), is a recent contributor to Legacies: An Asian American Anthology and is an active member of the greater Houston community.